« Numbers | Main | Stuff »

March 09, 2005

Thoughts on the Draft

The Moose is joining Phil Carter and Paul Glastris in calling for mandatory public service for all young Americans on national security grounds. I'm a bit conflicted on this -- I see the appeal of the plan, and I'm certainly not adverse to the idea of national service, in some ways, I think it'd be good for me and my peers. But seeing it proposed by folks who will never have to undergo it strikes a false note with me. Were we in some sort of perpetual national crisis that mandated an everlasting draft, as, say, Israel is, that'd be one thing. But this is being proposed simply as a way to make the American army bigger, more powerful, and more able to pursue expansionist policies (no matter what Andrew Sullivan says, Islamo-fascists aren't going to land on our shores and attempt to take South Beach). Considering my generation's weak support for our foreign policy expeditions, I think it's a pretty hard sell to force us into service in order to fuel more of them. Moreover, the modern operations our military carries out require a much more specialized force than will be found in a mass of two-year conscripts. Our real deficiencies are in the numbers of troops trained in languages, in peace-keeping, in nation-building, in communications technology. And sure, the influx of young grunts would allow for voluntary sign-ups to receive great training in those areas, but it seems like a massively inefficient way to achieve the goals.

More important than concerns over efficiency are concerns over fairness. First, there's no small portion of young Americans who would escape to and remain in foreign countries, particularly Europe, when faced with the option of conscription under a warlike Republican president. Were I coming of age in a draft system with Bush in power, I'd hightail it out of the country -- I can't imagine that serving this man's whims would be safe, moral, or smart. And while I realize that the civil options exist, I assume that universal conscription of this sort would have an override built-in, making it trivial to end the civil option in times of warfare or perceived threat.

Beyond that, the series of incentives in place to convince youth to enter the military, rather than the civil service areas, will not only continue the class stratification of America, but, I fear, actually make it worse. Considering the national security rationale of the proposal, the civil options are only being included so the whole plan isn't scuttled by middle-to-upper class kids and parents unwilling to enter harms way. But that secondary bit won't fool anybody, it'll simply be the option of choice for those who can justify passing up the increased economic benefits. The result, at least potentially, is that middle and upper-middle class kids will have one set of shared experiences, while those from lower socioeconomic rungs will share a wholly different memory. To some extent, that happens now. Increasing its prevalence strikes me as pretty problematic.

Lastly, I wouldn't want to be the politician who touches this. Whichever end of the spectrum decides to tell this generation that their post-high school freedom is effectively over will lose young voters for the foreseeable future. Worse, I can't shake the ugly images of future conservatives barnstorming the country and easily fitting the terrible, no-good, very bad draft into their critique of the nanny state. I'd much prefer if the right did not use this to achieve a lock on the young.

As I said at the beginning, I'm sure of nothing when it comes to proposals like this. Indeed, I'd probably be inclined to support one that focused solely on national service. But a plan whose sole purpose is to increase our ability for military projection by sucking all kids into a draft that'll only force the economically disadvantaged to fight strikes me as a troublesome plan. Perilous in the way it'll shape future class resentment and stratification, dangerous in the effect it might have on Democratic voting blocs, and scary in the implications a huge and ready force has for the foreign policy of trigger-happy leaders. Frankly, I'm glad that our military's size has constrained Bush. With a few more hundred thousand ready to deploy, I fear we'd be in Iran by now.

In any case, I'm very open to argument on this. So read the article -- it's a great piece -- and report back with your thoughts. I'm anxious to hear them.

March 9, 2005 in Policy | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Thoughts on the Draft:

» A Constituency for Caution from Politics and War
Ezra drops some insight on us with respect to the left-blogosphere's discussion over re-instating the draft. My initial assessment was that an ongoing draft might be a good thing, because the skills we'll need troops to have in the future... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 9, 2005 7:48:47 PM

» A Constituency for Caution from Politics and War
Ezra drops some insight on us with respect to the left-blogosphere's discussion over re-instating the draft. My initial assessment was that an ongoing draft might be a good thing, because the skills we'll need troops to have in the future... [Read More]

Tracked on Mar 9, 2005 8:06:51 PM


I live in Greece which has a mandatory national service structure and pretty much everyone goes. People do leave the country to attend college in the US or other parts of Europe, but on their return they enter the service. Since I'm not a Greek, I don't know all of the benefits enjoyed by the enlisted men, but I do know that public transportation is free and there is a great national interest in the well being of the conscripts, unlike what happens in the US since it is a volunteer military.

Posted by: Harolynne Bobis | Mar 9, 2005 4:48:46 PM

Ezra, this has been one of Mr. Peters' causes at the W. Monthly since the 80s. Three things:

1) It would take another catastrophe even potentially worse 9-11 to make this even remotely palatable politically,

2) As you point out, there would be class differences concerning what service (there will be cushy jobs available for some but not others),

and 3) this would accomplish what the Bush Admin. has long feared: a lot of people proclaiming their homosexuality rather loudly.

Posted by: Chris Rasmussen | Mar 9, 2005 6:02:41 PM

Only if middle-aged people have to serve too. Draft your own self if you love national service so much, Mr. Peters,

Posted by: xz | Mar 9, 2005 6:54:41 PM

Well, to be fair, Carter at least has done more than his fair share of serving the nation.

Posted by: Saheli | Mar 9, 2005 8:04:53 PM

I would say the idea of national service is a good one so long as its purpose isn't to swell the ranks of the military. Let's face it: our military is powerful enough to face any threat (and then some) and inflating it will only lead it to seek out conflicts to justify its existence.

Yet national service in the form of other service programs seems like a good idea. Why not increase the budget of the Peace Corps? Americorps? Teach for America? If we're going to send hundreds of thousands of Americans into battle, doesn't it make sense to send hundreds of thousands of others out to promote our "soft power"?

Of course, you're right in saying that it'll never be implemented without a cataclysmic event. But it's an interesting idea that shouldn't necessarily be tabled.

Posted by: MattSchiavenza | Mar 9, 2005 8:06:09 PM

To XZ and alike people:

I'd like to dedicate the following comment entitled "A smack upon the ignorant, when due" to you.

First, Mr. Charlie Peters served in the Peace Core as a young man during a time when the Peace Core was not considered to be the joke that it sadly is today. So, he did "draft his own self." Second, Mr. Peters, a very bright Harvard educated man, dedicated a vast proportion of his life to establishing the Washington Monthly. Just so you are not mistaken, and Ezra will confirm my claim, the Monthly staffers basically live on povertyesque wages. Again, for at least the second time in his life, Mr. Peters dedicated himself to the improvement of other humans' lives as well as the bettering of our own government. Finally, and this comment is for everybody, why is so hard to ask people to donate two years of their lives (two years that include pay and benefits) to improving, protecting, and serving the country that we are all very fortunate to be born in.

Whether or not Glastris's plan fixes the shortages within the military is another topic, but are people that nihilistic, that selfish, that self-centered, that elitist, etc. etc. that they cry, complain, and detest the possibility of guarding nuclear plants, teaching in schools, policing streets, inspecting cargo, etc. etc. from the ages of, say, 18-20 ... all in the name of national service.

I'm not saying the plan is perfect. But my response to anybody who simply reacts by saying, "Fuck you middle-age men; Fuck anybody who wants me to do anything that doesn't revolve around me," is this: If my children didn't have to live in the same country and world as yours, I'd hope your family's future generations are born into a poor, desolate, insecure community. Then, perhaps, appreciation will settle in.

Posted by: Steve C | Mar 9, 2005 8:07:30 PM

... and the whole bullshit complaint that "if they didn't have to do it (meaning past generations) why do I, that is not fair blah, blah, blah." That is the epitome of anti-progressive, conservative crap. Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be for someone to say, You know, when I was a kid I didn't have health care coverage because my parents were too poor, so why should people in the year 2006 get that benefit?"

Posted by: ...an Addendum to earlier comment | Mar 9, 2005 8:11:48 PM

Ezra, I can't imagine anyone portraying the draft as part of the "nanny state." The concept of a nanny state is that it coerces you to do something that's good for you -- "I should be able to choose whether or not to wear a seatbelt," etc. I don't think there was ever an attempt to make a serious similar argument about military service, because the whole point is that you're doing something for societal well-being ("for the good of the country"), which is quite different.

Posted by: jbl | Mar 9, 2005 8:36:42 PM

Voluntarily joining the peace corps, etc., is very different from being forced. He was in no way drafted.

Mr. Peters is proposing to require young people to do something against their will, for the common good, simply because they are young, and exempting old people simply because they are old. It's de facto ageist. There is absolutely no reason that people can't devote the first two years after retirement to mandatory national service.

Furthermore, if Mr. Peters' accomplishments exempt him from service, why shouldn't young people be given the opportunity to exempt themselves in the same way? For example, people could be given until the age of 65 to be helpful, and then if they haven't, they could be required to serve. Or course the question is who would decide what counts as service, but we would have that problem anyway in making the assignments. Anyway, I say give people a chance to do good on their own before forcing them into an age-discriminatory scheme against their will.

Posted by: xz | Mar 9, 2005 8:37:57 PM

We need these troops for the war on the Korean peninsula next year and then to help Taiwan repel China's 2007 invasion. Just FYI.

Posted by: Ugh | Mar 9, 2005 9:17:08 PM

Uh...guys? This was Paul Glastris and Phil Carter, not Charlie Peters. And it's totally true that Phil Carter has served the nation, both with his military career and his journalism. I've no interest in knocking either one, i respect both immensely.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 9, 2005 9:24:43 PM

several comments:

Firstly I think your arguments against it are solid and I see no reason why you should (kind of anyway) back off at the end, by saying you're not sure of anything.

Secondly, the idea of national service in any country is not an inherently bad idea; actually it can be a pretty good one. But military service is a whole other ball of wax and whatever the proposal, these two very different ideas of national service must be clearly differentiated.

Thirdly, the US should take care of its own first. In 25 or so developed countries the US ranks very near the bottom in child poverty and overall poverty. In a country so rich that is truly shameful.

Fourthly, most people in the world would much prefer to see some kind of balance of power rather than the US, as Glastris and Carter put it, "remain the world's preeminent power." The point being that any move that could lead to more US militarism is bad. There are way way too many loose cannons in the country that have considerable power.

Additionally, they begin their article claiming the US left Haiti "relatively stable, secure, and reasonably peaceful." I don't have the figures off hand but i can assure you the US virtually abandoned Haiti in the 90s, with not much of the aid reaching the country. (as did several other western countries)

Unless there is a true international coalition willing to face a real crisis, most of us don't want the US to intervene solely to maintain its power. The idea of US exceptionalism, and thus, the belief that it has the right to dictate what's right and wrong in the world (moreover as the world's only superpower) is more than just a little off-putting to most of us.

I like this line: "The war in Iraq has shown us ... the courage of the average American soldier" The images that the rest of the world sees are these. And that ain't too damn courageous.

For me any soldier who stands up and says, "Mr.Bush I refuse to serve in this needless bloodbath. This is not protecting the country" is courageous.
(if anyone freaks out over this, I certainly don't mean to condemn the entire US military - I just want to point out that the world does not hold the same perspective as Glastris and Carter and there is a significant number of troops that are, well, SOBs.)

They say: "America has a choice. It can be the world's superpower, or it can maintain the current all-volunteer military, but it probably can't do both"

If that's the option, then I vote for maintaining the all-volunteer military.

And the authors, without any proof, claim the US can control whether it remains the only superpower - meanwhile China dwarfs the country in population, is surging ahead economically and holds huge portions of the US debt.

If just a fraction of the military budget were devoted to foreign aid (again the US is near or at the bottom in terms of the % of GDP that goes toward foreign aid) the world would be far safer.

And there are so many other options to make the world safer instead of blindly calling for more soldiers and a bigger military (and hence billions and billions of dollars, and invariably more violence)

all in all the article was not impressive.

Posted by: b.hunter | Mar 9, 2005 9:27:50 PM

More substantively:

Steve: There's a real question of personal freedoms vs. coercion here. It's my read of the situation that the civil and homeland security options are really there to make the military portion palatable to the populace. Plus -- do I really want post-high school students in charge of my homeland security system? Not so much. In any case, we don't force people to do the Peace Corps, we don't force people to teach in urban areas, we don't force people to do much of anything re: their occupational choices because we've decided that that's not the governments role. All this is not to say that it shouldn't be the government's role, but simply calling those opposed nihilistic and selfish is a very flippant way of dealing with a serious question.

JBL -- Maybe I shouldn't have used the term nanny state. To be clearer, I simply mean that I could see it appropriated in a people vs. the government campaign. That fits much better into the conservative rhetorical arsenal than ours.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 9, 2005 9:32:46 PM

Hunter -- Actually, I am unsure here. This is my gut reaction, even though I'm sometimes sympathetic to national service plans. But I tend to come down on the side of voluntary civil plans with high incentives, not mandatory draft proposals. Also, I'm with you on the idea of us not being so preeminent as a power. Bush's ascendence has shown me that I don't trust us enough to be a sole superpower. A smaller army, with all the multilateral cooperation that idemands, is probably a good thing.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 9, 2005 9:35:49 PM

Here's something: Montana may be asking the Secretary of Defense to recall their guardsmen- because this is projected to be one of the worst fire years in recent history... and the same (re: fire year) could be true for Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. When the fires get too bad, the guard frequently deploys.

I think this apposite to note because wild-land firefighting could be a national service that the potential draftees could fulfill. There is a need- and boy howdy would young 'uns have interesting experiences so doing. Valuable skills learned? CPR, first aid, running your ass off, etc.

Just a random thought.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 9, 2005 9:42:23 PM


Sorry for getting the names wrong-- all I'm really suggesting is that we treat people equally regardless of age. I don't mean to denigrate anyone's service, but the fact is that voluntarily choosing to do something altruistic is fundamentally different from having the Feds tell you what to do with two years of your life.

I'm not in favor of this option either, but here's an idea that might address your criticisms above. People have to, over their lives, log a certain number of hours of service. They can do it on 3-day weekends or whenever is convenient for the That way there is a mixed-age group doing the work, and it's much more flexible. Most people live their lives in this way anyway, spending a few years at once or an average of a few hours a week on uncompensated community stuff. I think it would be significantly less coercive (though still too coercive for me). Anyway, it wouldn't affect occupational choice in the same way.

Posted by: xz | Mar 9, 2005 9:43:54 PM


My complaints aren't directed as those who oppose any sort of service, but my complaint is addressed to those who disfavor national service based on: A) age discrimiation (meaning mom and dad didn't have to, why do I; and B) people who just flat out reject the idea strictly based on the fact that they feel as though they should be exempt from any costs, risks, or sacrifices that are necessary for the overall improvement of a country, a society.

If you're against it because this plan has flaws, or because it doesn't obtain the goals it sets out to, or because it is discriminatory, that is one thing, and perfectly respectable. I had nothing against your post, at all.

I'm upset with people who have hair trigger negative responses simply because they really believe they are either above such a request or simply believe that they owe nothing for the luxuries that they enjoy. As much as people want to rant and rave against/about the United States, as you know I do very much so Ezra, we all should have an appreciation for the benefits that this country provides most of us.

The fact of the matter is, as Phil Carter said on Lou Dobbs, costs and sacrifices are "deep but not wide." My belief is that if everybody or, at the very least most people, have direct relation to those costs of war or any other national cause, then risk will be minimized. It is much easier to say, "Hey let's send our troops here, let's do this with these people," when you are isolated from the consequences of those actions. Is it not much easier and less complicated, to partake in an action if you are unlikely to directly sacrifice? I like the idea of spreading risk throughout society so that it is not concentrated on a narrow segment of people. I think the result would be better planning, more thorough analysis, and risk-averse behavior.

Posted by: Steve C | Mar 9, 2005 9:53:15 PM

I see the appeal of the plan, and I'm certainly not adverse to the idea of national service, in some ways, I think it'd be good for me and my peers.

Beware of what others think is good for you, for they may have their own interests uppermost in mind and not yours or anyone elses. All this is really a 'make work' project for those who think they know better than you how your life should be lived. The only reason to have a draft is when necessity, not virtue, calls for it.

Posted by: David W. | Mar 9, 2005 9:55:25 PM

David W.

But doesn't the national service idea go along with what you are saying is a problem: "Beware of what others think is good for you, for they may have their own interests uppermost in mind and not yours or anyone elses." That is the point. Spread costs throughout society so the people making decision will have to bear sacrifice as well.

Let's all be honest here. The Iraq war would have executed and planned for quite differently if the makeup of the army was different. I'm not even going to argue that it would have been avoided - that would be too drastic of an assumption. But, the planning for it and the reasoning for it would have been, to put it lightly, better. Does anyone argue against that?

Posted by: steve c | Mar 9, 2005 10:01:18 PM

I do apologize for some of the language I used. I was wrong and it was pathetic of me to resort to name-calling. I am Italian so, hopefully all is understood...sometimes I get a little worked up.

Posted by: Steve C | Mar 9, 2005 10:03:50 PM

Actually, I don't think it would've been better. I think it might not have happened at all, but those outside government didn't know the planning was poor, and those engaged in the poor strategizing thought their ideological assumptions were infallible. These folks aren't careless, they're extremists, and so, if the war was to go forward at all, I doubt it's character would have proved malleable.

Posted by: Ezra | Mar 9, 2005 10:04:21 PM

It's ok, no worries. My initial comment was flippant too, but the substance stands: if service is good for the young, it's good for the old, and no coercive proposal that exempts the author can be taken very seriously.

Posted by: xz | Mar 9, 2005 10:07:25 PM

"A smaller army, with all the multilateral cooperation that demands, is probably a good thing.

Exactly. There are many countries out there that would be willing to participate in any needed military excursion if they were shown a little respect.

And if Bush hadn't led the country into a needless war in Iraq and alienated so many, (and he were a completely different person, I suppose) maybe something would be done in Darfur... a real crisis.

Posted by: b.hunter | Mar 9, 2005 10:08:47 PM

Ezra -

You don't think constiuents would have put more pressure on their Congressmen and women? You don't think Congressmen or women facing direct ramifications (a family member, a constituent, etc.) wouldn't have acted differently? There wouldn't have been a bigger outcry of "No WMDs!" if risk was spread more equally throughout society? Congressmen and women who voted for it, wouldn't have been asked in a more vehement fashion to defend this discrepancy? There wouldn't be more public pressure to figure out why things haven't been as Bush & Co. predicted beforehand?

Posted by: Steve C | Mar 9, 2005 10:23:34 PM

I think national service is a pretty good idea--but not until the neocons are out of office and the country's on an even keel again. Liked the firefighting idea......and just think, we could solve our ever-shortage of capable jurors by having future attorneys spend a year on jury duty!

Posted by: Steve Mudge | Mar 9, 2005 11:16:18 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.